Halifax Heroes: Woman makes surfing a reality for people with spinal cord injuries
Learning to surf can be a life altering experience for someone who has been told 'you'll never walk again.'
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For someone who has struggled to come to grips with the phrase ‘you’ll never walk again,’ learning to surf can be a life altering experience.
Over the past few years occupational therapist Paula Green has dedicated much of her free time working to make that experience a reality for Nova Scotians with spinal cord injuries.
The Lawrencetown resident and mother of three is one of the leading forces behind SurfAble, a non-profit organization that officially formed three months ago.
SurfAble grew out of Green’s brainchild event held in 2014 in partnership with Life Rolls On. That California-based organization founded by Jessie Billauer is “dedicated to improving the quality of life for young people affected by spinal cord injury” using action sports.
Green and her husband are avid surfers. She submitted an application to request Billauer’s non-profit help stage a Nova Scotia-based surf event for people with spinal cord injuries.
It took a few years to make it happen, but Green and a committee of like-minded people raised $55,000. Those funds helped make Martinique Beach accessible and brought four people from Life Rolls On to the province to teach the community the skills needed to put on the event.
It also helped them link with sponsors to buy equipment like beach wheelchairs, adaptive surfboards and beach mats.
“I worked on it every single day for a year after we decided we were going to make it happen, but I didn’t work alone,” Green insisted.
“There was a lot of time that went into it because we were starting from scratch.”
The tasks faced by Green and her committee included modifying wetsuits through a medical supply company and working with a local surf shop to modify surfboards with rails and handgrips.
The 2014 event brought 18 surfers and 120 volunteers to Martinique Beach, in addition to many in wheelchairs who came to watch. For some, it was the first time they’d been able to access a beach since their injury years or decades before.
Green said the happy stories from that day are with her still.
“One volunteer (Alex Chandler) was with surfer Paul Vienneau and at one point he bailed into the water and Alex immediately bolted to grab him out of the water and Paul said ‘Step back man. This is the first time I’ve been in the ocean since my accident. Just let me float here for a minute,’” Green said.
“Alex took a step back and he realized the magnitude of what he was experiencing… After the event, Paul said ‘I’m so happy that this event happened.’ He said it wasn’t about adaptive surfing, it was just about surfing.”
The group couldn’t host an event in 2015, but now that they’ve formed as a non-profit, the 2016 SurfAble event is ready to roll on Aug. 20 at Martinique Beach.
“We’ve had a huge national and international response from the first event. We’ve had people call us from India who’ve heard about it,” Green said.
“I think it’s something that people will plan their vacations around. We’re hoping and expecting to have a much larger turnout this year.”
Green was also recently contacted by the Canadian Surfing Association about the possibility of establishing a Canadian team of adaptive surfers who could compete internationally.
“That’s where I see it going. I hope we can link up with the folks on the Pacific side,” she said. “It would be nice if this could be a coast-to-coast thing and the newest Canadian sport, adaptive surfing.”
When asked how she has the energy to work full time and volunteer so many of her free hours with this project, Green pauses.
“When you do something that you’re passionate about it doesn’t feel like work. I’ve enjoyed every second of it,” she said.
Do you have someone to nominate?
Each Monday, we will profile an unsung volunteer hero in our community as part of Halifax Heroes. To nominate someone, email firstname.lastname@example.org, Metro Halifax's managing editor, or Tweet @metrohalifax using the hashtag #Halifaxheroes